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Income and child maltreatment in unmarried families: evidence from the earned income tax credit

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This study estimates the associations of income with both (self-reported) child protective services involvement and parenting behaviors that proxy for child abuse and neglect risk among unmarried families. Our primary strategy follows the instrumental variables approach employed by Dahl and Lochner (2012), which leverages variation between states and over time in the generosity of the total state and federal earned income tax credit for which a family is eligible to identify exogenous variation in family income. As a robustness check, we also estimate standard OLS regressions (linear probability models), reduced form OLS regressions, and OLS regressions with the inclusion of a control function (each with and without family-specific fixed effects). Our micro-level data are drawn from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a longitudinal birth-cohort of relatively disadvantaged urban children who have been followed from birth to age nine. Results suggest that an exogenous increase in income is associated with reductions in behaviorally approximated child neglect and CPS involvement, particularly among low-income single-mother families.

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  1. Specifically, 46 % of excluded family-wave observations resulted from a family not being interviewed at a given wave and 42 % from missing data on the CPS or behaviorally-approximated maltreatment measures; the remaining exclusions were due to missing income data. Table A1 presents a comparison of descriptive statistics from the FFCW sample with fully imputed data and the subsample that we excluded from our analysis due to missing data (prior to implementing our sample exclusion criteria). We find few substantive differences in the characteristics of the two samples, although self-reported CPS involvement is lower in the imputed than non-imputed sample (4.1 % vs. 5.7 %) and there are slightly more single-mother families in the imputed data (47.1 % vs. 41.2 %). Of course, our analysis sample is more disadvantaged than either of the other samples given that it is limited to families that were unmarried at the age-3 interview and had AGI below $45,000.

  2. We also tested two additional sample selection criteria: (1) including limiting the sample to families with AGI below 130 % of poverty (Hardy et al. 2015), and (2) limiting the sample to families in which the mother has a high school education or less, a non-income-related marker of disadvantage (Evans and Garthwaite 2014). We present results when these samples are used in Table A2 and A3. In both cases, the general pattern of results is consistent with that in our primary models, though the second stage IV results are less often statistically significant in the alternative specifications, as would be expected given that they less accurately include families that are eligible for the EITC. Furthermore, the low education sample is larger than that of our primary specification and there is considerably greater variation in income, as well as a more skewed income distribution, necessitating that we log the income measures and limiting our confidence in the estimates. Notably, Evans and Garthwaite (2014) use the low education sample selection criteria with a difference-in-difference specification. We are aware of no existing study that uses this sample selection criteria with IV analyses.

  3. Notably, the majority of CPS investigations include allegations that are not able to be substantiated by a preponderance of the evidence. As such, investigations, rather than substantiated cases of maltreatment are widely used in child maltreatment studies because the decision to substantiate often reflects factors unrelated to the actual maltreatment allegations (Font and Maguire-Jack 2015); furthermore, associations of investigated (but not substantiated) and substantiated maltreatment with child well-being do not differ (Hussey et al. 2005).

  4. In the FFCW age-3 through age-9 interviews, respondents were asked to provide an exact dollar amount of household income. Those that were unable or unwilling were asked to provide a range. Approximately 90 % of respondents provided household income data in one of these two forms. The FFCW study team then imputed household income dollar amounts for respondents who reported income in range format based on other respondents who provided income in the same range but via detailed income amount. They then imputed dollar amounts for those who did not report income in either format. Both imputations included the following covariates: relationship status, age, race/ethnicity, immigrant, employed last year, earnings, total adults in the household, and received welfare in the last year. For a detailed description of the FFCW constructed income variables, see and The income measures used in our primary analyses are based on the FFCW constructed income variables. We also conducted supplemental analyses using only observations with non-imputed income and found no substantive differences in results (see Table A5).

  5. Although the FFCW data contain separate measures of earnings, this item is only asked with regard to the respondent. Earnings data for partners are only available if the mother’s current partner is the biological father of the focal child; even then, these data are often incomplete. Thus, we determined that subtracting nontaxable income from total income was a superior approach to income based on only those earnings reported.

  6. We also conducted our analyses using only lagged income. The results do not change.

  7. For all IV results, we present the Kleibergen-Paap F-statistic and the critical values for weak identification (Stock and Yogo 2005).

  8. IV results for cohabiting families and families with only one child at baseline (age 3) are presented in Table A4. We also estimated a series of robustness checks using the sample of single-mother families at age 3, including (1) limiting the sample to currently unmarried mothers, to currently single (non-cohabiting) mothers, to always unmarried mothers, to always unmarried currently single mothers, to always single mothers, to single mother with two or more children, to single mother families at age 3 with non-imputed income, and to always single-mother families with non-imputed income. Each of these analyses produced results that are substantively consistent with those from our primary models although estimates in some cases were less likely to attain statistical significance due to reduced sample size and associated lack of statistical power. See Table A5.

  9. We also estimated supplemental models using alternative specifications of the behaviorally approximated abuse and neglect measures, including dichotomous measures that a family scored more than half of a standard deviation above the sample mean for abuse or neglect, and continuous measures of the abuse and neglect indices (standardized to have a mean of 0 and standard deviation of 1). These results (see Table A6 and A7, respectively) were consistent with those from our primary analyses.


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The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study is funded by NICHD grant numbers R01HD36916, R01HD39135, and R01HD40421, as well as a consortium of private foundations and other government agencies. This research was supported by funding from the Institute for Research on Poverty and the Waisman Center (NICHD grant number P30 HD03352) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Population Research Center (R24 Center Grant) 5 R24 HD042849 NICHD and Training Program in Population Studies 5 T32 HD007081, NICHD at the University of Texas at Austin, and Population Research Center (R24 Center Grant) 2 P2C HD058486 at Columbia University School of Social Work. The authors are listed alphabetically. Address for correspondence: Lawrence M. Berger, University of Wisconsin-Madison, School of Social Work, 1350 University Avenue, Madison, WI 53706

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Correspondence to Lawrence M. Berger.

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Berger, L.M., Font, S.A., Slack, K.S. et al. Income and child maltreatment in unmarried families: evidence from the earned income tax credit. Rev Econ Household 15, 1345–1372 (2017).

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